by Peter Holleran
"It is not death that a man should fear, but he should fear never beginning to live."     - Marcus Aurelius
On Friday, September 16, Jerome Lourme and I drove to Yosemite for the start of a memorable two-day run through a spectacular national park. Jerome, ultralight backpacking veteran and fellow fanatic adventure runner, shirked off my reservations about back-to-back 27 mile days and 10000 feet of climb saying the run was "puny". Mike Lotter cancelled at the last minute because of an inability to get Friday off (it is comforting to know some Tamalpa runners still work), choosing instead to join Roy Rivers for a run on the Pacific Crest Trail between Carson and Ebbett's passes the following weekend, missing out on our near-perfect weather and facing snow, hail, sleet, and rain instead. We made our camp at Tuolumne Meadows at 8600’ to allow for acclimation to altitude, enduring sub-freezing overnight temperatures and three bears. We had been forewarned by campground officials to keep our food at arm's length at all times. One ursine thief that had been shooed away from a neighboring campsite to OUR campsite let us stand ten feet away shining our flashlights on him without giving us the slighest attention as he devoured a stolen goody-bag of blistex, jerky, pudding, and basically anything that wasn't tied down. After a gourmet meal at the Mobil Mart (aka Tioga Gas Mart) in Lee Vining (no kidding, it is THE place to eat in town), we turned in early, and got up before dawn on Saturday and drove down to Yosemite Valley (4035'), where we left our car, thus committing ourselves to the return trip, as the bus from Tuolumne Meadows to the valley had stopped running for the season.
After climbing to Vernal and Nevada Falls, we followed the John Muir Trail to Little Yosemite Valley, passed the Half Dome turn off and headed to Cloud's Rest (9926'), the day’s main attraction, 10.5 miles from Happy Isles. Excitement grew as we approached the summit, an eagle’s nest on a knife edge with a 5000’ drop to forbidding Tenaya Canyon. We both agreed that it was equally as impressive as Half Dome, if not more so. This portion of the run took us 2:45.
After a brief stop and snack from there it was seven miles of mostly downhill with one moderate ascent via the Cloud’s Rest, Forsyth, and Sunrise trails to the south side of beautiful Tenaya Lake (8200’), where we ate lunch and refueled. After a scenic run along Tenaya Lake a final anticlimactic nine miles on a trail paralleling the Tioga Road brought us back to Tuolumne Meadows, for a total of 27.5 miles, 8000' of climb and 2000' of descent, in 8 hours, including stops.
We scarfed down a quick meal from the grill, and made dinner with whatever we could find at the Tuolumne store. (The grill closes at 4 p.m., the store 6 p.m. (6 p.m. and 8 p.m., respectively, before September 5) - important logistics to keep in mind).
Sunday morning we left camp after another freezing night and took the John Muir Trail southeast to the Rafferty Creek trail towards Vogelsang and the junction with the Fletcher Creek Trail (10000'), then headed west down the Fletcher Creek Trail, passing woodland, meadow and Emeric Lake before plunging steeply 2150’ in 2.5 miles to Merced Lake camp (7200'), 15.6 miles from Tuolumne. Due to the snows this year none of the High Sierra camps had opened, and few hikers were passed en route. The trail is spectacular with a great deal of variety, but much more rocky and slow going than expected, with a few anticipated uphills. Here is one hiker’s photo journal of the entire route from Tuolumne Meadows to Merced Lake.
Just after leaving Merced Lake for the remaining 13 miles along the Merced River to the Valley I fell for about the tenth time and my right hip went out of socket and back in quickly with a big pop. It was dicey after that for a while, because the hip felt loose and was painful with the slightest imperfect movement and there was still a long way to go. I have gotten pretty good at fixing a chronic shoulder dislocation (which went out twice the day before our trip), but have had no experience with hips, which are a little more serious, since you need them to run on. I thought of the great Ted Corbett, who said that this was the only kind of injury that kept him off his feet. For a few moments I felt my mortality and the risks of wilderness ultrarunning. It pays to be careful in environments like these. Unfortunately, some do not always use such care.
I walked for a mile and then found a shuffle I could manage, and eventually could jog slowly, which was a small miracle, although any jarring or misstep felt like the hip would go out. I kwetched a bit and Jerome said I reminded him of his grandmother. Seven miles of granite slab, sandy trail and Hansel and Gretel forest through Echo Valley brought us to the junction for Bunnell Cascades, which then led over a brief ascent to a series of tight switchbacks back to the river, where a group of hikers were enjoying a perfect swimming hole. After several miles we passed Moraine Dome and eventually rejoined the John Muir Trail and hikers returning from their climb of Half Dome. A quick rock-hop down the steps beside Nevada and Vernal Falls got us to the valley in three hours from Merced Lake, quite fortunate given my mishap. I had anticipated hobbling for five or six hours, at best. For a while I visualized myself wrapped in a survival blanket while my friend ran 13 miles to the valley to arrange a helicopter rescue! In retrospect I think I had done too much, with two 25+ mile round-trip hilly runs from my house to the East Peak of Mt. Tamalpais within a three day period just 6 days before the Yosemite trip. That most likely probably fatigued my muscles, which finally gave way and failed to adequately support my hip joint. Basically I had done four 25 to 27 mile runs with an average of 5000’ of climbing within an eleven day period, which was pushing it.
The second day was also 27.5 miles, but with 2000' of climb and 6000' of descent. The technical terrain and my injury, however, made it take as long as the first day, 8 hours including stops. Things always seem to take longer than they take, especially in glorious but unpredictable places like this. Major snafus on the trip were leaving one of my two sport-drink water bottles at our campsite on Saturday morning before driving to the Valley, and my running partner forgetting his agreement to make me a sandwich on Sunday. That was a double bummer for me upon arriving at Merced Lake, for not only had I become a cripple, but I had no lunch either! Gu and Cliff Bars just don't cut it after a while. I made up for this deficit at Happy Isles, and continued eating most of the way home, except when Jerome gave me an anxiety attack zipping down Old Priest Grade past Big Oak Flat despite a warning that my wife had reported an intermittent braking problem with my car. (Old Priest Grade follows an original wagon path up the mountain from the south end of the Don Pedro Reservoir to Priests Station. It is shorter and steeper than Hwy 120, climbing 1575 vertical feet in less than two miles, for an average grade of 14% with a top section of 20%. Back in the old days, stage passengers often had to get out and walk as the grade was so steep the horses couldn’t pull a loaded stage up the road). My extensive pig-out produced results, however, for (remarkably for me) I weighed in on Monday morning five pounds heavier than the week before, even after the 55-mile run!
If I did this trip again I would detour after Cloud's Rest on the Sunrise trail to lovely Cathedral Lakes and continue from there to Tuolumne, eliminating the trail from Tenaya Lake that is much less interesting. Alternately, I would continue to Tenaya Lake but then backtrack to Cathedral Lakes making for a longer route. Future big ideas include a 42-mile run down the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne to White Wolf and from there to the top of Yosemite Falls and back to the valley on the Yosemite Falls Trail.
This is about as good as it gets for the runner, and it is all waiting for you right now.